The story so far: Jo Devereux has returned to Mucknamore, the Irish seaside village where she grew up, for her mother’s funeral after an absence of 20 years. There she reconnects with her sister Maeve, brother-in-law Donal, niece Ria and – to her great surprise – Rory O’Donovan, once the love of her life and the last person she expected to see at a Devereux funeral. Now read on:
Donal explains that we are to stand behind the hearse and lead the cortège down to the old cemetery. Only when he says this do I look across and realize: my father’s grave lies flat and undisturbed.
‘Let me guess: another special request?’
‘Yep. She’s to be buried with her own family.’
Not with Daddy. I’m surprised she braved the scandal of that, dead or alive.
‘And according to the grand plan, we all have to walk there.’
To the old cemetery? That’s down almost as far as Rathmeelin, the next village up the coast. In this heat? I doubt I’ll be able to make it. But now here’s Maeve bustling across, aggravated-big-sister expression in place. ‘Am I supposed to say, better late than never?’ she asks me, her kiss failing to connect with my skin.
‘I’m sorry, Maeve,’ I say. ‘Really I am. I didn’t get your messages until last night and . . . ’
‘Honestly, Jo, you’re impossible. Why do you have an answering machine if you don’t bother taking your messages?’
I say nothing. Usually, I do pick up my messages as soon as I come in the door of my apartment but these past days have not been usual.
‘And couldn’t you have let us know you were coming? Where were you when I rang, anyway?’
‘Out?’ What do I mean, out? She rang me at all hours of the day and night, left four or five messages on my machine. Her red-rimmed eyes are ringed with black, circles gouged deep by distress, so I let her scold me, always one of her favored occupations, without argument or interruption but it’s a relief when the undertaker slides across and whispers in her ear and she moves away again to line us up in the order Mrs D. Dictated. Father Performer and two of the keeners are to go in front of the hearse, the other two priests and the other two keeners immediately behind, then us.
‘Ria!’ Maeve calls, with that voice that mothers use to address their children when they have an audience. ‘Just there, love, beside Daddy.’
Was I expected when Mrs D. made her plans, I wonder? The black car slips into gear and rolls out the gates and the keeners lift the pitch of their noise another notch, start to hold their notes for longer. The only words I recognize are the lamentation of the refrain: Ochón agus ochón ó. They are a troupe of actors, Maeve explains in whispers as we begin our march. Mrs D. must have been planning the event for months. Years, maybe.
We trudge down the village main street, making slow progress past the two-roomed national school; past Lamberts’ little farm, still the same stench of dung mingled with sea salt; past the post office, green An Post stickers plastered all over its window. Rounding the curve in the road, I see our house. Mrs D.’s house. Bar and grocery in front, bedrooms above, living rooms and kitchen behind. When we reach it, the undertaker stops the hearse outside the front door, turning off the engine for two minutes silence. The keeners drop quiet and now we can hear the sea.
Mrs D.’s house. Just a front-room bar and shop but in her world it made her someone. A home that was bigger than most others around and a business that was central to the life of the village. So central, in her mind, that when she talked about the shop, she gave it the name of the village itself. ‘Mammy’s talking about selling Mucknamore,’ Maeve had said on the phone a while back. ‘This time I think she really means it.’
And this time she really did. The ‘For Sale’ sign went up on the dwelling that had defined her for 76 years and quickly attracted an offer but before she had time to sign the deal, she fell dead. Dead, Mrs D. That is what you are. It’s over.
After one hundred and twenty blessed seconds of silence, the keeners recommence their lament and we move off again, up the gently rising hill towards Rathmeelin. It’s fresher up here, with a small breeze blowing off the sea, and we can see The Point, the thick peninsula of sand dunes that curves out into the water, joining Coolanagh island to the mainland. As a child, I used to see Coolanagh as a giant head, the jutting bit to the west its nose, the small inlet beneath its mouth and the spiky marram grass of the dunes its hair. The island stretches wide and tall enough across the mouth of the Mucknamore’s little bay to almost cut the ocean off at low tide. Around it, on the three sides visible from here, are treacherous, waterlogged sands that have inspired a lot of folklore and legend. They gleam at us now, flat and apparently innocent, in the almost-midday sun.
We pass the old police barracks, once a burnt-out husk, now a holiday-apartment block with landscaped gardens and balconies facing the sea and a higgledy-piggledy line of bungalows, each built without any awareness of its neighbor, like a row of crooked teeth. Then the buildings stop, the road narrows and we are in a country lane that hugs the coast.
The sun bleaches the hedgerows to grey and seeks out white skin to burn. My nausea now is a squirming mass, thick and threatening. I no longer respond to Maeve’s whispers. I must concentrate on my breathing, focus only on the way ahead. Slowly, slowly, on we tramp until, at last, we can see the cemetery, a patchwork of crosses and slabs of stone staring over a low wall at the sea, closed now to anybody who does not already have a plot inside.
Mrs D’s open grave is there, waiting for us, and beside it a pile of earth with surface cracking as it dries in the sun. Three Celtic High Crosses stand sentry over the hole in the ground. The smallest, newest one belongs to Auntie Norah. ‘Norah Anne Teresa O’Donovan. 1900 to 1987. Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam.’ Irish-gaelic for May Her Soul Be With God. Granny Peg would have chosen this inscription for the woman who was not really our aunt at all but her closest friend. And Norah must have chosen – perhaps it was this which inspired Mrs D’s unorthodox interment choice? – to be buried here with Gran instead of with her own people, the O’Donovans.
The middle-sized gravestone commemorates the Parle family – Granny Peg, her parents and husband. Soon Mrs D’s dates and details would be carved beneath theirs. The third, most highly ornate stone is dedicated to Uncle Barney, Gran’s brother, of whom she was so proud. Uncle Barney who made the ultimate sacrifice, who died for Ireland. Erected by his old IRA comrades, the inscription on this tall Celtic cross is in the old Irish alphabet and so illegible to me and to anyone but a handful of Irish scholars but, no doubt, it’s some guff about a free and united Ireland. A terrible thought strikes me. I whisper to Maeve. ‘Mrs D. hasn’t asked for any IRA palaver for the burial, has she?’
Granny Peg, I knew, had had a full Irish republican burial when she died: tricolour flag draped across the coffin, volleys from old IRA guns fired into the air as they lowered her down, report in the local paper. . .
‘Oh no, nobody does that any more,’ Maeve whispers back, eyes to the crowd. ‘Not since things got so bad in the North.’
The priest and the wailing keeners have joined us by the graves and we must stand straight and wait while the long string of people trudges in and gathers round. Father Doyle’s face makes his feelings clear: he has no choice but to indulge these eccentric requests – the deceased was one of his keenest patrons – but he does not have to approve. My knees long to buckle as the noise batters against my temples in time with my blood. Shut up, beats the pulse. Shut up. Shut up. Finally, at the height of the lamentation, they do, stopping abruptly and stepping back into the crowd.
Silence reverberates. A lone pair of hands starts to applaud, the claps faltering as it becomes obvious that nobody else is going to join in. As Father Doyle begins to pray in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, I spot Rory close by and behind him, the entire O’Donovan clan. All of them: Paddy and Brendan and Martin and Joan and Mary and Kathleen and Benny and their assorted spouses and children. I’m so surprised by this that it takes me a moment to register the woman who must be his wife – a tall cooly, elegant blonde, the very opposite of me – holding two little hands that belong to the boy and girl who must be his son and daughter.
I feel sick. It’s physical, nothing to do with seeing this perfect family portrait. I’ve had 20 years to accept that while Rory may have been the love of my life, the one who spoiled me for all others afterwards, I did not mean the same to him. So he managed to move on to marriage, fatherhood and children: I knew that long ago — and good for him. I’m not jealous. Whatever I wanted to do with my life – and I will admit that at 38-years-old, I am a little tardy in answering that question – I do know, I’ve always known, what I don’t want. It’s a long list that includes many things and experiences that seem so desirable to others: a car that drives faster than the speed limit, a career, a house in the suburbs, weekly trips to the mall, a television, a beach house down south, a face-lift… And tip-top, first and foremost, outright number one on the list of Things That Jo Devereux Does Not Want is marriage and two kids in Mucknamore. Even with Rory O’Donovan.
Nausea twists in me again. And again. I try to beat it down but this time pressure is swelling up into my nose and ears and I know it’s going to come. My middle constricts, my head fills with the sound of somebody wailing. Father Doyle looks up from his missal, annoyance all over his face now. This is not what was agreed, this is supposed to be his time. He should have recognized that this sound is different, rawer than the ritual cries of professional keeners. Me.
I try to stumble away, floundering in the only direction free of people, and find I’m walking towards Mrs D’s open grave. I can see the questioning faces of the crowd but it is as if they are behind a gauze. The cool earth-hole beckons and as I pitch towards it, a male voice calls out my name, ‘Jo!’ and two strong arms shoot out. My body recognizes him, sways towards him, but as it does my stomach erupts and I find I’m spurting vomit over his shoes. I try to apologize but the next wave is surging up. ‘You’re all right, Jo,’ he says. ‘You’re all right.’
Oh, but I’m not. Again and again it comes, sick pooling on the grass around our feet. He holds me throughout – what must his wife be making of that? – and when the heaving stops he places a handkerchief into my shaking hands. I wipe my mouth and try to speak but my lips won’t move and when I step away from him in an effort to stand on my own, the world comes rushing in through my ears, spinning me into a vortex of blackness. Rory takes hold of me again and I sag, let unconsciousness carry me off.
It feels like days later when I waken. I am in bed, between two sheets, heavy blankets pressing down on me like hands. Above me, on the ceiling, strips of timber make a design of squares. I’m in my old bedroom, inhaling the old smell of sea air and lavender. It comes swimming into my nostrils, seeped with memories. If I were to have fallen face first into one of the vomit pools I left behind in the graveyard, I couldn’t feel more choked, more repelled than to find myself here.
My eyes track the pattern of wood on the ceiling in the old way, and I am a child again, trapped in this room with the night monsters, the ugly men-beasts with horns and stiletto claws who hid under my bed, and in my wardrobe, and behind the closed curtains. I am feeling again for the courage I used to dredge up to place my feet on the carpet, inches from where one of them might be lying or to tiptoe across the room and yank open the cupboard door, only to find the space they left behind.
Only this time it’s the past that’s inexplicably alive, crouching in the corners, waiting to pounce.
I listen for my old comforter, the ocean. There it is: pound, swoosh… pause… pound, swoosh…, the backing track to my childhood. Mrs D. hated the sand that clung to the carpets and to the end of the bath after we let out the water. She hated the salt wind that spattered our windows with stains and scoured paint off doors and window frames. Her voice was forever raised in high complaint about it all: ‘Am I the only one who sees the dirt? Does nobody else in this house have a pair of eyes on them, a pair of hands?’
The sea didn’t care. On it went, forwards and back, raising its volume whenever we opened a window or door; smashing against the shore like an angry god in winter; in summer sending glitter-blue invitations to us to come out and play. Granny Peg and Auntie Norah swam all year round, summer and winter. ‘It does Norah good,’ Gran used to say. ‘Nothing better for a body.’ And it was true that Auntie Norah always seemed more cheerful, less impaired, out of the house, out of her clothes, with her white swimming hat making a bulb of her head. So did Gran. Sitting on the grassy bank I’d watch the two disembodied heads bobbing above the waves and wonder again whether Auntie Norah ever talked to Gran out there.
‘Does Auntie Norah talk to you when you’re on your own together, Gran?’
‘Sometimes she does, pet. But not that often.’
‘Why doesn’t she talk more?’
‘Because she can’t.’
‘Mammy says she’s well able to talk if she wanted to.’
‘No, no, that’s not right. If she could, she would.’
A door opens downstairs releasing a buzz of loud talk. The funeral. No doubt the drink is flowing by now, the craic flying, the sentiment oozing. I am grateful for the queasiness that allows me to lie here and avoid it. Everything that drove me away is still here, in this village, in this house, I can feel it grudging and judging me still. I turn onto my side, roll myself inside the blankets into a tight coil and let the rhythm of the waves carry me back to sleep.
‘Jo. Jo! Can you hear me, Jo?’ I want to abscond back to my dream but the voice won’t let me. ‘Jo? Are you awake?’
It is Maeve, standing at the end of the bed holding a tray. Tea and toast.
‘I am now,’ I say.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t know whether to wake you or not but you haven’t eaten a thing.’
I try to sit up but my head, feeling like it’s packed with gravel, pins me to the pillow. She sets the tray on the locker. ‘I’m sorry,’ she says again. ‘Should I have let you sleep on? I didn’t like to go to bed without checking you.’
‘Bed? Is it bedtime?’
‘It’s early yet. But I’m going as soon as I can. I’m just shattered.’
‘I can imagine. You should go now.’
‘I wish…’ And she launches into long spiel about everything that went wrong as she tried to serve drinks and lunch and snacks and now teas and how she could never have managed without Eileen. Is this an muffled complaint against me, useless as ever in that department? I say nothing as the domestic litany of the day drones on until eventually she sighs herself to a stop and sits down on the bed beside me, her head bent so that her neck bones protrude like knuckles. ‘Seriously Jo, how are you feeling now?’
‘I don’t know, a bit woozy.’
‘Has this happened before? Have you been sick in San Francisco?’
‘No,’ I say and it is true. Not sick, not as such, not like today.
‘I rang Doctor Woods, asked him to drop by.’
‘No need for that.’
‘He wanted me to drive you down to the surgery but I persuaded him to make a house call. Tonight or first thing tomorrow, he said.’
‘You don’t look too hot yourself,’ I say.
‘You know what I mean . . . It’s been a tough few days for you.’
‘Awful. The worst.’ Her eyes well up. ‘Jesus, I can’t stop crying! I think I’m all cried out but the bloody tears are only gathering for the next flow.’
Which is better, I wonder, to cry too much when your mother dies or not to cry at all?
‘I can’t bear to think of her, in the kitchen, on her own . . . struggling to get to the phone . . .’
That’s where Mrs D.’s heart attack had struck, early on Friday morning. After she has blown her nose and dried her eyes, I say, as some sort of consolation: ‘You were very good to her.’
She was. Our mother was 76 when she died, severely arthritic and chronically cranky, but Maeve had converted the garage of her Dublin home into a granny-flat so Mrs D. could spend protracted visits. Every year, she and Donal brought her away on their winter holiday, and at least one weekend out of every four, Maeve and Ria drove the hundred miles from Dublin to Mucknamore to visit her.
Which is worse? To see too much of a disagreeable parent or not to see her at all?
‘When Daddy died,’ Maeve says, ‘I had a lot of regrets. Whatever else, I didn’t want that to happen this—’ Her hand flies to her mouth. ‘Oh, God, Jo, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean . . . ’
‘It all right,’ I say. ‘I know you didn’t.’ She looks so embarrassed. Does she really think a little gaffe like that makes any difference?
‘I have a favor to ask you,’ she says, switching the subject. She wants (‘needs, actually’) me to stay on in Mucknamore to sort our mother’s affairs. Things are complicated. Mrs D. auctioned the house and business a few weeks ago but it failed to meet its reserve price. She since agreed a sale with a German couple – who have given up their jobs in Düsseldorf to move across – but Mrs D. died before contracts were finalized. All this, on top of the usual issues that arise after a death.
‘I can’t stay,’ says Maeve. ‘I just can’t. Ria needs to get back to school and Donal is up to his eyes in work.’
‘Whereas the spinster sister has no life worth speaking of?’
‘Oh, come on, Jo,’ she says.
Come on: this is the first family duty you’ve been asked to cover in twenty years; Come on: don’t be so selfish; Come on: it’s the least you can do for Mammy and me and all the family, and might, in some small part, make up for all that trouble you inflicted on us for all those years with your unforgiving attitude. Quite a load for two little words to carry but such is the verbal shorthand of families.
‘If you can’t do it, I don’t know how we’ll manage,’ she says. ‘But before you decide, there’s something you should know. Mammy’s affairs are being handled by Rory O’Donovan.’
‘Really. He’s been acting as her solicitor for months, apparently, ever since she started to seriously consider selling.’ She is looking out the window, not at me. ‘He has the will,’ she goes on. ‘She’s arranged for him to come here and read it to us both tomorrow.’
‘But… But —’
‘I know. I was as surprised as you.’
Mrs D.? Telling her business to an O’Donovan? Talking to an O’Donovan, for God’s sake. Especially to Rory O’Donovan. To Rory! ‘I don’t believe it,’ I say. ‘I just don’t believe it.’
‘He’s downstairs now,’ she says. ‘He’s been there since he . . . since you . . . all afternoon. He wants to know, can he come up and see you before he goes?’
‘No!’ I say, almost shout. ‘No way. Tell him I’m not well enough to see anybody.’
This reminds Maeve that she should be looking after me. ‘Aren’t you going to eat something?’ she says.
I put my hand on the blanket over my queasy stomach and shake my head.
‘At least have some tea. You have to have something.’
She pours me a cup of tea and, I wrap my fingers around the warmth of the cup and find it tastes unexpectedly comforting. I try some toast. Again, surprisingly good. Maeve sits on the bed again, closer this time. So close I can feel the tension humming in her, and – like everything else today – it brings me right back: I remember her circling Mrs D.’s moods, senses on full alert, seeking a gap through which she might enter to say the right thing. Usually she picked her moment with uncanny tact but not always. Not always.
I wonder how she remembers it all now. We gave up talking about the past years ago; we saw it all too differently. I take a second slice of toast and she pours me another cup of tea.
She says, ‘There will be money, you know, once the place is sold.’
I chew my toast, the noise loud in my ears.
‘You should think about what you’ll do with a lump sum like that, Jo. You could lose a lot taking it back to the States, with the exchange rate the way it is. You might want to buy something here in Ireland?’
‘Thanks for the concern, Sis. I know you think I am doomed to a miserable old age because I haven’t got a pension but even if Mrs D. should leave me some money and we both know that’s a big if . . . ’
‘Of course it isn’t.’
‘It doesn’t matter to me, Maeve. Things like that aren’t…‘
‘Mammy just wouldn’t do that. Surely you know that much about her?’
I give up, go back to chewing toast and she sits twisting her marriage ring round and round its finger. My silence is getting to her. It always does, though this time I am not trying to.
‘Jesus, Jo, would you answer me?’ she blurts after a whiles. ‘Is an answer too much to ask?’
I make my face blank, a sheet of glass that bounces her gaze right back. I have to, I have to . . . If I fire off the retort that searing my tongue, in seconds we’ll be quivering into a fight, our faces wrenching into hateful shapes, our memories leaping back across the years to snatch up the old insults and injuries that lie in waiting all around this house, so we can fling them hard and deep into each other’s weaknesses. I can’t let that happen, not today.
Help me, Gran. And you too Richard. Help me keep the vow I made to you both yesterday afternoon – was it really only yesterday? – on my knees, in San Francisco. I will do this well. I’ve got off to such a bad start with all that Rory O’Donovan business earlier. And I’ve been making such a mess of things lately. I need all the help I can muster or I’m going to make things worse, not better.
After a long time my sister says, ‘You’ve something missing in you, Jo, do you know that?’
‘I guess you have enough of it for both of us.’
She picks up the tray and make to leave. As she reaches the door, it I call to her in my gentlest voice – ‘Maeve?’ – and she turns, two hands on the tray, one foot in the door keeping it open.
‘This business of reading Mrs D.’s will tomorrow . . . ’
‘I won’t be there.‘ I want to oblige, and will where I can, but I must protect myself too. Even the thought of this sick little scheme of Mrs D’s makes me boil: Maeve and I sitting at Mrs D’s dining-room table while Rory sits across, reading us her requests and bequests. No, sorry: no can do.
‘But, Jo, you have to . . . If you’re not there —’
‘I’m not going. You can tell me all about it afterwards if you want.’
‘I really think —’
‘Maeve, I’m not going.’
We are looking at each other across an impasse when a knock comes to the door, followed by a male voice calling, ‘Hello? Anybody there?’
With great satisfaction, knowing it’s the last thing I want, Maeve is throwing the door open and ushering Rory O’Donovan into the room.
NEXT: Rory has a surprise for Jo and a letter from her mother.